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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 95


Mr GIBBONS (7:33 PM) —I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate on the Water Bill 2007 and the Water (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2007. Twelve days ago NASA launched the latest unmanned spacecraft in its Mars exploration program. If all goes according to plan, Phoenix will land on the Red Planet’s surface in May next year to continue the search for extraterrestrial life. Of course, NASA is not expecting to find any little green men—with or without high-speed colour printers to deceive the on-board cameras. What it is looking for is water. The search for water is a proxy for the search for life, because without water there can be no life as we know it. As we debate this bill, this is surely a timely reminder of what is at stake. Water is not just another optional resource we obtain from nature, like oil, gas, coal and minerals; it is the foundation of life for every plant and creature on this planet. Our ability to effectively manage the water resources of the driest continent on Earth is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Since European settlement we have, in many ways, been ingenious with water. Through imaginative engineering schemes we have harvested water for use in climates and ecosystems that are quite unsuitable for the agricultural methods imported from the Old World. We have used water to generate large amounts of electrical power. We have supported urban settlement in wholly unsuitable locations. In my own electorate of Bendigo, for example, there is no natural waterway sufficient to sustain a city of 100,000 people. The city is only where it is due to the discovery of gold in the local creek beds in the 1850s. And it has been battling for a secure supply of water ever since. Hopefully, water security will at last become a reality when the first phase of the Goldfields pipeline comes on stream next month—a project, I might note, that saw lengthy prevarication by the Howard government as Liberal members of this House joined Liberal senators and state opposition MPs to offer highly ambiguous support for or outright opposition to the Victorian government’s initiative.

Despite—or perhaps because of—our engineering achievements, we have long passed the point when our current exploitation of the water resources is sustainable. The need for considered Commonwealth intervention in the Murray-Darling Basin has been obvious for years, yet the Howard government has presided over a confused and perplexing approach to water management. There are several overlapping Commonwealth bodies responsible for water, each administering a range of different programs. Different structures, different departments, different ministers, different accountability mechanisms and different time lines all add to the confusion. Although there is a national plan in the National Water Initiative, and funding through the Australian government water fund, you would be forgiven for thinking the opposite because so little is being achieved—while most of the allocated funds remain unspent.

What we have before us today can only be described as an election year knee-jerk from the Howard government—an ill-thought-out, knee-jerk response announced just days after the Leader of the Opposition offered bipartisan support for a national water summit and proposed the establishment of a single federal water agency. Labor offered a political truce on water so real progress could be made on addressing the critical issues. What was the Prime Minister’s response? A politically driven, election year knee-jerk.

One of the big challenges in rescuing the Murray-Darling system was always going to be the leadership and coordination of the states and other stakeholders. Unfortunately, the Howard government’s record on this has been woeful. After the Keating government led the way on national water reform in the historic bipartisan COAG agreement in 1994, we have had 11 years of Nero-like fiddling from the Prime Minister—11 years in which the government has failed to respond to the clear and repeated warning signs of the problems in the Murray-Darling Basin, 11 long years which have seen the worst drought in eastern Australia in living memory and 11 years during which millions of taxpayers’ dollars have failed to produce any noticeable progress—and yet, and I find this particularly hard to believe, we still do not know something as basic as how much water can be sustainably extracted from the Murray-Darling system. We will not know this until the CSIRO report later this year, some 120 years after the first irrigation schemes began in the Kerang-Pyramid Hill-Swan Hill area of Victoria.

Of course, we now know that climate change, with rising temperatures and falling rainfall patterns across eastern Australia, is steadily exacerbating the Murray’s problems. But what have we seen from the Howard government on this issue? Yes, the same 11 years of delay, denial and inaction. Whether the topic is water management or climate change, the Howard government has become incapable of working with the states to achieve outcomes that are in the national interest. The Prime Minister’s only answer is to spit the dummy and take his bat and ball home because he has to share the crease with the premiers. He has abdicated the responsibility conferred on him by voters at the last election, and I have every confidence that next time around the electorate will note that he no longer wants the job of governing the country.

There is no single silver bullet to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin. Rather, the answers will be a series of initiatives in a whole-of-basin approach led by the federal government in collaboration with the basin state governments. These initiatives have to include some innovative and visionary thinking outside the traditional solutions. We can no longer just build more or bigger dams.

I would like to outline some potential solutions. The first is not new. It is called desalination. We may live on the driest continent, but we are surrounded by an abundance of seawater. ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,’ as Coleridge’s ancient mariner lamented. Desalination must have a part to play in our national water security. There are many examples of desalination plants providing a constant supply of fresh water to some of the driest parts of the world, notably in the Middle East.

Of course, no desalination option is an easy one and there are usually major challenges to overcome. Appropriate disposal or reuse of the saline waste material and the substantial energy cost to power the plant are just two. No-one would argue that these are trivial issues, but surely we are talented enough to solve them. If we can build the Snowy Mountains scheme and the Murrumbidgee and Goulburn irrigation systems, efficient and environmentally responsible desalination plants are surely not beyond our capabilities. And, in addition to local desalination plants servicing coastal cities and urban communities, why shouldn’t we consider something more ambitious?

I have raised this particular idea before in this place, and I make no apology for doing so again, because I believe it warrants serious investigation. I am referring to the potential for a desalination plant on the east coast of Australia to feed fresh water into the headwaters of the Snowy and Murray River systems. The output from the plant—located at a suitable place on the South Coast of New South Wales—would be pumped up into the Snowy Mountains in carefully regulated amounts. Desalination plants consume significant amounts of electricity, but the use of solar, wave or tidal power would reduce both the cost and the greenhouse impact of such a plant. The fresh water would enhance the natural flows in the Snowy and Murray systems, perhaps even generating hydroelectricity on the way at a new power station. If no other use could be found for it, the prevailing ocean currents along the South Coast would help disperse the saline waste in the Tasman Sea.

This concept could provide significant water security to large areas of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, including the vital food bowl of the Goulburn Valley. Using our natural river systems as distribution channels would not only limit the overall cost of the scheme but also enrich the ecosystems of some of our major rivers. Existing irrigation systems would get a new supply of water, securing the future of the numerous townships that depend on agriculture for their survival. The overall benefits to communities in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia would be substantial, but a project on this scale would have to be a national responsibility. I commend the idea to the federal government for further evaluation.

Desalination plants need not be located in or near our coastal regions. I believe it is worth considering the construction of a desalination plant in north-central or north-western Victoria, some hundreds of kilometres from the coast. Before anyone summons the attendants to have me carried out of the chamber for treatment, let me explain it a little more. Land clearing and the use of European agricultural practices in the Mallee and north-central regions have exacerbated the natural salinity of the soils. The saline groundwater responsible for a lot of the devastation normally has much lower levels of salts than the seawater processed by coastal desalination plants. The desalination effort at an inland plant should, therefore, be less and may require smaller plants consuming less power than a typical coastal one.

The north-west of Victoria is, of course, well placed to utilise alternative energy sources such as solar energy to power such a plant, which would help to reduce any greenhouse impacts. While disposal of the saline waste products may prove a challenge, pipelines can be built quickly and relatively cheaply these days, or more innovative uses of the waste could be researched. If detailed studies show there is potential in desalinating the Mallee’s groundwater then this could slowly return currently contaminated land to either productive agricultural use or to its native state. I do not pretend for one minute that this idea is simple and there are not significant challenges in providing power and disposing of the waste materials, but with long-term climate forecasts predicting higher temperatures and lower rainfall in this part of the continent we surely have to consider all options—even the radical ones I am outlining today.

Another idea for a potential solution is for a scheme closer to my own electorate of Bendigo. Bendigo has an annual growth rate of 1.8 per cent and is the fastest-growing region in central Victoria. Towns along the Calder Highway between Melbourne and Bendigo, including Kyneton and Castlemaine, have also experienced substantial growth in recent years, and even more is planned. This growth, together with the drought conditions over the past decade, has severely stressed our water supplies and led to some of the harshest water restrictions in Australia. Of course, an adequate water supply is critical for the region’s significant agriculture and viticulture industries. But the drought has also had a negative impact on other parts of the regional economy. Business and community leaders say that the lack of water security has adversely affected investment decisions to establish or grow local businesses. Bendigo is also an important regional centre that provides services such as health, education, aged care and banking to the surrounding areas. There is evidence that the skilled and professional staff necessary to fulfil this role are being discouraged from moving to the city because of the drought.

Despite some good recent rains, our water reserves remain far below normal capacity. The reservoirs in the Coliban system are currently about 15 per cent full, while Bendigo’s other main source of supply, Lake Eppalock, is at under five per cent of capacity. As I mentioned earlier, the goldfields pipeline will help secure Bendigo’s water supply, but only if there is sufficient run-off into the dams of the Goulburn-Murray irrigation system. And it will not directly provide any additional security for the other fast-growing towns in my electorate.

A ‘water bank’ may be a solution for them. The Coliban water authority has been investigating the feasibility of accessing groundwater from the vast underground aquifers in the Kyneton and Castlemaine districts. According to the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, these could be a huge source of good-quality water with salinity levels below 1,000 milligrams of dissolved salt per litre. This opens up the possibility of pumping groundwater into the Coliban reservoir system, benefiting Kyneton, Castlemaine and Malmsbury as well as adding to Bendigo’s total water resources.

But, with the appropriate infrastructure in place, there is an opportunity to go a step further. When the drought conditions ease, surplus surface water could be used to put water back into these natural underground water storages for future use. In other words, we would be establishing a water bank into which water is deposited in wet years and withdrawn as required in drought years. Groundwater is the main water source for many towns and community centres all over Australia and it is also extensively used for irrigation. The Centre for Groundwater Studies has said that artificially recharging aquifers using a technique called ‘aquifer storage and recovery’ can actually lower the salinity of the groundwater. The centre’s research has shown that even saline aquifers can be used to store temporary surpluses of surface water to create new water resources for urban or agricultural use. Recharging can also extend the life of previously overexploited aquifers.

The combined use of groundwater and surface water provides a far more flexible approach to water management in regional areas. With increased environmental concerns about new dams and surface reservoirs, banking surplus surface water in aquifers could assume greater importance. Of course, any artificial recharging will need to be carefully considered so it does not disrupt the natural recharging process during wetter years. Equally, it is surely unacceptable to plunder groundwater resources in drought years without giving any thought to recharging the aquifers in good years.

We hold our water resources in trust for our children and we must be responsible and accountable to the generations that may experience even more severe drought conditions in the future. This brings me back to the need for further water reform. It is unacceptable that the National Water Initiative, agreed to by the federal, state and territory governments in 2004, has yet to be implemented in full. Returning sufficient water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin must be a priority. We must take the necessary steps to ensure the long-term health of all rivers, wetlands and connected groundwater systems in the basin and the health of the communities and businesses that rely on their flows.

An efficient system for water trading is needed to address the fact that water has been overallocated, undervalued and misdirected, but the federal government has been incapable of consulting with and coordinating the key stakeholders in the basin in good faith. All water users, farmers, water scientists, state governments and the broader community need to be involved to ensure the adoption of efficient agricultural practices and to ensure that industrial and urban water users adapt their behaviour to minimise their water use. Yet the Prime Minister unilaterally abandoned complex negotiations between his Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the member for Wentworth, and the Victorian government just to suit his timetable and Mark Textor’s advice to blame the states for everything in the run-up to the next election.

What we are presented with here today is a less than ideal solution to the problems of our greatest inland river system. It is a tragedy for the nation that this is yet another issue which has required the prospect of an election to stimulate some action from the Howard government. We are still in the most severe drought in our history, but we are a resilient nation and a resilient people. We are able to withstand major disasters like famine, droughts, floods and bushfires—and coalition governments. I will be supporting the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Grayndler.